Silent Sky: Stellar Spring Semester Show

Syd Shearer, Web Designer

Juniata College’s Department of Theatre has kicked off their spring season with a stellar performance of Silent Sky, by Lauren Gunderson. Silent Sky tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt (portrayed by Rina Kirsch), a female astronomer at Harvard in the early 1900s exploring the science of stars, as well as the science of her own life. With a plot based on a real-life story combined with amazing design elements, this show provided a wonderful night for those interested in science, theater, or anything in between!

As audience members entered the theater, the first impression of the show they received was the set, designed by Apollo Weaver: a simple black backwall with circular steps in the center and a hanging window light above. At first glance, the set didn’t look like much, but throughout the show, more and more elements appeared—projections, designed by Joe LaRue, were displayed in the hanging window, giving the illusion of different settings while small lights appeared in the backwall throughout the show to give the audience a view of the stars Henrietta so admired. The set, albeit appearing simple at first, worked well with the other elements of the show and provided the chance for changes in location without needing to disrupt the layout of the set.

Besides Kirsch, four other actors helped tell Leavitt’s story: Akiva Hort as Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister; Declan Sullivan as Peter Shaw, a male astronomer at Harvard and Henrietta’s love interest; and Meredith Singleton and Ashley Ziegenfuss as Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon (respectively), two other female astronomers at Harvard. All actors had shining moments throughout the show, educating audience members about the importance of family, astronomy, women’s rights, and just how unpredictable life can be.

Along with the realistic nature of the script, Carly Reeder’s period-accurate costume designs helped audience members see characters as they would have lived. Corsets and long skirts showed the restrictive ways that women were expected to dress in that era, whereas Sullivan’s three-piece suits gave a nice contrast to the feminine dress of all other cast members. One notable costume piece was Ziegenfuss’ purple Suffragette ribbon in Act Two that stood out against the rest of the modest designs worn on stage.

In addition, lighting design by Jessica Carson, sound design by Grant Miner, and the projections mentioned earlier added levels of surrealism to the show as a whole. Stars filled up the set throughout the show, giving it a sense of extravagance as well as giving the audience the chance to see the galaxies just as Leavitt did! Sound design did not tie in directly with the script but provided back-up for the various emotions throughout the show. Finally, the projections displayed on the large hanging window throughout the show were by far my favorite part of the production: combining technology and theatre to tell a story about scientific discovery was a fantastic idea. It allowed the scenes to continuously change with almost no break in between them, and gave audience members a look deep into space right alongside Leavitt. Kudos to LaRue for creating such a fantastic asset to the production!

Neal Utterback and Sarah Wilt’s directing take Gunderson’s script and recreate it for the surreal set. The actors move realistically throughout much of the show, but occasionally contrast these movements with unrealistic ones. A part that sticks out in my mind is the beginning of the second act: Leavitt and Shaw are speaking in a dream, with Shaw standing in front of Leavitt, both facing forward. They reach out to touch each other, and suddenly the dream scene breaks, leaving Leavitt and Shaw communicating directly again. With splashes of surrealism such as this, the show flows excellently and tells the story accurately while still feeling exciting and suspenseful.

All in all, Silent Sky was not a spectacle to be missed. Combining a realistic plotline and costumes with a simplistic set and creative lighting and projections gave so much dimension to the show. As an avid lover of both theater and the stars, I was astonished; I could not have asked for a better show to attend to kick off the Department of Theatre’s spring season!

The next show of the season will be Mother Courage and Her Children, written by Bertolt Brecht and directed by Chris Staley. Mother Courage will be performed on April 25 and 26 at 7:30 pm in the Suzanne von Liebig Theatre. Keep an eye out on the announcements for ticket sales and other information. And again, to the cast and crew of Silent Sky, bravo!